Absentee politicians policy to be reviewed, Speaker announces after photos of former Alberta premier surface

By Karen Kleiss, Edmonton Journal April 29, 2014

EDMONTON – The province announced a review of Alberta’s policy for absentee politicians Monday, after photos surfaced showing former premier Alison Redford biking in a California resort city.

Gene Zwozdesky, a Tory MLA who sits as Speaker of the house, said he has long planned to review the legislature’s attendance policy and will set the formal process in motion next week at a meeting with house leaders.

“The (law) is obviously something that is in the power of the government to amend or not, and we need to have that discussion, and we need to ensure that whatever the protocols are that guide MLA attendance or absence are still relevant,” Zwozdesky said from London, England, where he is meeting with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

“I’m not trying to foretell what MLAs may decide … but I have an obligation to lead the discussion, and I’m prepared to do that,” he said.

Redford has been absent from the legislature since she stepped down as premier March 23; she remains a Tory MLA. She was photographed Sunday in Palm Springs, where she has a recreational property. Last week, her staff told Zwozdesky’s office she was declaring her absence under rules that exempt MLAs from being docked pay if they can’t attend due to illness or injury, bereavement, or public or official business outside the legislature.

Asked whether the review was launched in response to Redford’s absence, Zwozdesky said: “This issue has to do with all MLAs, because all MLAs have to play by the same rules. There may be some cases that have got the public’s attention more than others, I’m certainly not immune to that, and we will deal with it as the circumstances arise. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the rules have been followed and will be followed in the future.”

Several MLAs have been absent from the legislature for extended periods this session, including Liberal MLA Darshan Kang and Conservative MLAs Ken Lemke, Jeff Johnson and Wayne Cao.

The Legislative Assembly Act sets out the rules for political absenteeism. Section 34 says MLAs can miss up to 10 days of a session annually without explanation, but beyond that, they must provide a legitimate reason: illness, injury, bereavement or official business.

After 10 days of unexplained absence, the MLA is docked pay at a rate set by the Member Services Committee. Currently, the rate listed in the Member’s Allowances Order is $100 a day, plus a $50 deduction from the member’s expense account.

Legislative Assembly Standing Order 10 also says: “Every member is bound to attend the service of the assembly unless notification has been given to the Speaker in accordance with the rules of the assembly.”

Zwozdesky said the first step will be to meet with the house leaders from all of the elected parties, followed by a hearing at the Tory-dominated all-party members’ services committee, and finally a legislative review by elected MLAs.

Premier Dave Hancock said he doesn’t think there has been any abuse of the current system.

“I don’t know why he would be doing it, I don’t know that there has been any abuse of that,” Hancock said. “Members have been away when they’ve needed to be away and that has been communicated.”

Wildrose MLA and members’ services committee member Kerry Towle said a $100-a-day deduction from a $150,000-a-year salary “is not really that much of a disincentive” for missing work.

“We sit the fewest days in all Canada; the legitimate reasons for missing a session day should be pretty limited,” Towle said.

She believes that if a politician wants to miss work, he or she should have to provide the same kind of justification that every other Albertan does.

“If you’re an everyday Albertan and you want to go on stress leave, you have to go to the doctor and get a note,” she said, adding there should be more transparency around why MLAs are absent from the legislature during a sitting.

“If you’re away on legitimate business, it’s really easy to prove that,” Towle said. “I don’t think anyone would have as much of an issue (with Redford’s absence) if it had been clearly stated why.”

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